Sunday, June 03, 2018

Certainty, comfusion and one view of truth.

Spire of Metropolitan Cathedral, Casco Viejo, Panama
“Increasingly, Western culture embraces confusion as a virtue and decries certainty as a sin. Those who are confused about sexuality and identity are viewed as heroes. Those who are confused about morality are progressive pioneers. Those who are confused about spirituality are praised as tolerant. Conversely, those who express certainty about any of these issues are seen as bigoted, oppressive, arrogant, or intolerant.” (Abdu Murray in an interview with Bible Gateway)

I think most of us understand what Murray is talking about in the interview on his new book, (Saving Truth: Finding Meaning & Clarity in a Post-Truth World (Zondervan, 2018). Unfortunately, he begins the interview with a few logical errors that put the entire thesis in question. Broad generalizations like “Those who are confused about morality are [seen as] progressive pioneers,” makes both the generalization error as well as depending on a false dichotomy; throughout the interview as in the opening statement, certainty is paired with confusion as opposites. To begin by saying that, for instance, persons who reject Christian conventional wisdom on gender and sexuality are confused and then attributing that confusion to Western Culture is to play fast and loose with the very truth Murray sets out to defend.

Many of us are living through this false dichotomy even as we read apologists on both sides. A political comparison can probably be found to be analogous: for a socialist to hold up Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto as truth and to judge all divergent thought on the subjects it addresses as confusion, would be patently absurd. And yet, The Communist Manifesto contributes to the search for social and economic structures that work—but only if thinkers following Karl Marx work at critiquing his work in the light of new knowledge and experience. (This is not to equate Karl Marx with God; it’s meant to make the point that questioning the interpretation of any body of knowledge is not a consequence of confusion, but is in reality an ongoing search for beneficial meaning.)

When asked for his definition of truth, Murray says:

Simply put, truth is that which conforms to reality. There are historical truths, moral truths, scientific truths, and spiritual truths. And all of them must be coherent and cohesive. In other words, if our worldview is true, what we learn from history and science ought to complement each other. Spiritual truths also ought to complement other areas of truth. But fundamentally, truth is objective. By that I mean that it doesn’t depend on human opinion.”

Taken literally, then, nothing is true unless it conforms to or complements truths discovered in other areas. But since truth is objective, all science, history, spiritual truth has to be chiseled and sanded down until it conforms to the one, objective truth. The internal contradiction in Murray’s definition is startling coming from a respected theologian and teacher.

But let’s bring this down to earth. What he’s saying is in defense of his and his colleagues’ insistence that the Bible is pure, objective truth, and that their method of reading it has unlocked this objective, incontrovertible truth. We see this viewpoint as defense for positions surrounding the big moral questions of the day: abortion, gender equality, same-sex marriage, divorce, medical assistance in dying, the death penalty, etc., etc. By Murray’s definition, truth conforms to reality, but in this definition also lies the seed of its confusion: in holding to a position of objective truth as Murray sees it, denying reality becomes absolutely necessary.

An example: We’re all familiar with Paul’s advice about women speaking in the assembly of Christians. Today’s reality tells us that there’s no grounds biologically, socially to consider women less competent in intellectual or spiritual teaching than men. To follow through on Murray’s definition, though, Paul is stating an objective truth and our thinking on this must conform to that objective truth.

I’m told that a local pastor is still insisting that women in his congregation be bound by this absolute truth, but even in most conservative assemblies, truth has been broadened to conform to reality in this regard.

Picking and choosing has become an art form; some would call that a state of confusion.

But I may be interpreted here as denying the existence of absolute truth. If it’s reasonable to assume such an entity, seems to me it would have to do with the repeated admonitions in scriptures that approaching the New Jerusalem, establishing the heavenly kingdom of peace and joy can only come through the practice of unconditional, sacrificial love. I find very few moral arguments that can’t be answered with Christ’s summation of all law and prophecy, namely to love with all your being the creator and creation, and to love your neighbour according to the measure of love you long for for yourself.

Reverence first, empathy second. By these the kingdom comes . . . and by no other means.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Good bye, Blue Planet

It’s possible that I, and you, will be partners in the ownership of a pipeline in the future. I’m elated. I own a share in a power corporation, a gas company and a communications corporation (I live in Saskatchewan) and a provincial bus company a refinery and a bunch of grain cars. But I’ve never owned a pipeline. Whoopee-ding!



I’m not so much worried about the fact that future generations will have to cope with increasing temperatures that will produce massive desertification, that low-lying areas will be inundated and that the resulting famines, refugee pressures, civil and international wars will be the rule rather than the exception. I don’t have grandchildren, so I’m happy to trade other peoples’ future for the dividends my share of the pipeline will produce. I could sure use the twenty bucks a year . . . maybe thirty!



That’s always been the story, at least since the industrial revolution. You only have the space between birth and death to worry about because before you’re born, you have no needs. After you’re dead, of course, you have no needs either. But in between, WOW, we get the best advice from Iago in Othello I,iii: “Put money in thy purse.” Every person has to deal with the conditions existing between his birth and death; I’ve had to deal with it; your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will deal with theirs . . . or not.



Oh, I know. Individually and as a culture we use twice as much energy as we need. We’ve let the low-energy-consuming rail system go to pot, we light up spaces when and where there are no people about, we fly far and wide, drive here, there and everywhere. But here’s the thing; we in the west are enjoying the best standard of living human-kind has ever known, and I, for one, don’t intend to waste all these amenities, luxuries and opportunities. I’m going to enjoy them; let your great-grandchildren sit at home with a candle for light and a tin stove for heat.



Two things I worry about . . . a bit. If I live to be a hundred, I might actually experience significant degradation of the environment and the chaos it’s bound to produce. Secondly, I worry a little that a future generation will dig up my bones in a rage and burn them in the town square. But, of course, how much can that matter to me . . . today particularly?



Finally, the kicker-argument: the earth’s environment fluctuates naturally, there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, thank God. And so I retreat to my Bible, because that’s where I get my guidance. 

 Ecclesiastes 8:15, “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.”



I’ve figured it out. Our pipeline will be about 1,300 Km. long. That means my section of the pipeline will be 3.7 cm, or about ---------------------------- this long. By some estimates, it’s going to cost me and every man, woman, child, grandchild in the country only $571. That’s a measly $154 per centimetre.



How could this possibly be a bad deal??







Saturday, April 28, 2018

What's that, you say?

Propaganda: information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.” (Dictionary.com)

It comes from the same root as propagate, which word makes the idea clearer because we know that “to propagate” is to cause something to grow. So when we “spread widely” information, ideas or rumours in a way designed to make an “idea, rumour or information” grow, we are engaging in propaganda. This one—and any other blog posts of mine—are propaganda. Televised, YouTubed evangelistic services are propaganda, as are all political broadcasts, flyers of any kind distributed to mailboxes, all advertising, etc., etc. If it’s “widely distributed” in order to propagate any idea, rumour or information, it’s propaganda. At least by the Dictionary.com definition.

Question may arise: how wide does it have to be to qualify as “widely distributed?”

None of us need to be told, I’m sure, that the internet, smart phones, email and social media—following hard upon the heels of television, radio and the telephone—have very rapidly increased the volume of propaganda to which we can be subjected on a daily basis. The problem is that the legitimate communication (actual reports of what’s going on in the world, in our community and with people we care about) and propaganda (opinion, distortion and persuasion) are all mixed together. The human mind’s ability to sort out which is which has become—in a single generation—a most necessary skill.

It’s mightily disconcerting to admit that our thinking and acting may have been influenced by propaganda; we would rather not be thought of as brainwashed, manipulated, baffled by bullshit. The fact is, though, that elections are won and lost, war sentiment is successfully propagated, people become rich selling hula hoops based entirely on who plays the propaganda game most skillfully. And every propagandist knows how gullible, how persuadable we are; every successful propagandist has studied and learned the techniques that are most effective in influencing the broadest possible audience.

A few defensive moves I’ve picked up in my reading on this question:
      • In school and at home, teach children logic and reason, encourage them to question more than to answer and don’t spoon-feed them your opinions as facts.
      • Educate yourself in identifying propaganda: who’s saying it, how are they saying it, what ideas are they hoping I'll embrace, or what actions are they hoping I’ll take, etc.?
      • Govern your communications: If you want to be on Facebook, for instance, form a “secret group” and invite only the people you want to hear from, and don’t post personal information and photos to the general public.What you say is being sold to advertisers who will begin to target you with propaganda based on the interests you reveal.
  • Get your information from the least-biased sources: BBC, CBC, CTV, PBS, Huffpost, possibly, and avoid Fox, CNN, Rebel, RT, ILTV and other sources that have an obvious “leaning.” And even if you’re watching a more trusted, more equitable source, be critical of the way propaganda tends to creep in; no news outlet is pure, no reporter without personal bias.
  • Read books! Books aren’t all great, but chosen well, they represent background that has often taken an author years of researching, and hours and hours of dedicated grinding away. Books can be propaganda as well as any other communication, of course, so be critical and be aware that if you’re reading only books that support your already-held opinions, you're welcoming propaganda to come in and make itself at home in your head.

This is a critical time in world affairs. We can’t let the propagandists have the last laugh.




Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Smothered by respect


Found Art. Jasper National Park, August 2010

Face-book, Twitter, Linked-In, Instagram, etc., are doing some really awful and some really wonderful things for our collective consciousness. Providing a forum for many who are too timid to engage literally in the charged conversations of the day, they potentially give anyone the feeling of being included, if only through putting together a sentence or two and clicking on “post.” Being noticed, after all, is one of our basic needs; so easy to take a cute picture of my cute dog (or butterfly) and actually publish it on line where friends see it and “like” it and some even consider it worthy of being “shared” with all their friends. 

I call that a wonderful thing, even letting alone the ease with which staying in touch has become more immediate and deeper for those who choose to use social media to that end. Even letting alone the ease with which urgent news can be communicated to many, many people almost instantly. Even letting alone the fact that using social media is far more interactive and engaging than watching television, for instance, or reading a newspaper, magazine or book.

But all this wonderful stuff comes arm in arm with the revelation of some pretty awful characteristics of turbulent humanity. Seething rage now has an easy, unregulated outlet, as does the most nauseating fawning.

Those who claim “venting” is good for the soul and lessens the likelihood of physical violence might have a point; but those who say that habitual angry outbursts build on each other and raise the likelihood of eventual violence may also have a valid point.

Yet ventilating, when it’s confined to repetitively self-vindicating messages, can also be self-limiting. And misused in this way (which is all too common) it can link to prematurely, and self-defeatingly, claiming “victimhood” when what’s really called for is actively behaving in ways that could potentially rectify a situation. As such, it can become little more than an excuse for not acting to resolve a problem or confront an issue that requires confrontation.” (Leon F. Seltzer, PhD in Psychology Today, see https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201404/6-virtues-and-6-vices-venting)

The social media phenomenon has the power to teach us important lessons about ourselves. Because what was previously private can now be scrutinized without our knowledge, we possess the means for surreptitious break-and-enter into anyone’s underwear drawer and medicine cabinet, not to mention anyone's habits and preferences. The use of hacked material that would normally be private opens the door to targeted persuasion at the most benign end of the spectrum (as in advertising) to blackmail and political influencing of voters at the extreme, other end. We’ve already seen disturbing signs of the latter in the Muller investigation.

This could teach us something important both about our vulnerability to greasy charlatans and to temptation where power and money are at stake. 

"They won’t be gunned down in the streets but they just might find themselves smothered by respect, good will, empathy, courtesy and common sense."

49,800,000 people worldwide have chosen to have Donald J. Trump’s tweets open on their computers or smart phones on a regular basis. The web log you’re reading right now is generally read by somewhere between 125 and 175 people. The world’s population is estimated to be 7,600,000,000. That means that 7,550,200,000 don’t see Trump tweets or that 7,599,999,850 will not read this post.

What’s my point? The volume of people who are engaged in whatever dominates a given news and social media cycle today is a marble compared to the basketball of people living ordinary, nine-to-five, non-politically partisan, unterrorist, family and community lives. For every person screaming and cursing at other people screaming and cursing at them, there must be millions quietly doing their best to make the world a bit better.

When the quiet, thoughtful people finally decide to unite and gather in person or on social media, or both, the crackpot fringes—left and right—of our populations might as well kiss their rage goodbye.

They won’t be gunned down in the streets but they just might find themselves smothered by respect, good will, empathy, courtesy and common sense.

Hasten the day!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Colton Boushie Murder

Convergence
Colton Boushie of the Red Pheasant Reserve died of a gunshot wound to the head, a gun a jury decided had discharged accidentally. Gerald Stanley was holding the gun; the presence of drunk teens invading his farm would logically have aroused his anger and he was probably right in saying that under the circumstances, he wasn’t thinking straight and may have had no intention of killing anyone when he got out and loaded the handgun. Perhaps his overriding impulse was simply to protect his wife, son and his property from danger. I could understand that. 

Like most people who followed this story, I can’t possibly know exactly what the teenagers’ or Gerald Stanley’s motivations were, theirs in invading Stanley’s farm property, his in taking out and loading the gun and pointing it at Colton Boushie’s head. Too drunk to remember perfectly, the teenagers’ testimony could hardly be relied on to recreate the tragic chain of events objectively. The Stanley family would obviously have super-strong motivation to frame the events in a manner that would lead to the result that finally obtained, and so their testimony is equally suspect. 

There are plenty of people who purport to know what went down, but elevating what I think and stating it as fact isn’t helpful. What is knowable is the degree to which tensions have arisen in many times and many places between indigenous and settler neighbours. What is also knowable is that a handgun is a lethal weapon, and as a spoon is primarily made for ladling food, a handgun is manufactured for the purpose of taking life. What is further knowable is that settler/indigenous conflict is the product of a history and that prejudice and stereotyping go back to early settlement, residential schools, treaty failures and the form of apartheid we came to call the reserve system.

In a way, Colton Boushie was murdered in 1492 when Columbus stepped off the Santa Maria and the colonial theft of the Americas was set in motion. In a way, Colton Boushie was murdered by the policy geared to clearing land for settlement by making treaties and then failing to fulfill the conditions agreed to. In a way, Colton Boushie was murdered by the many, many conversations about “useless, thieving Indians” carried on over settler fences and across tables in coffee shops in settler towns for years now. 

It’s something most of us never experience: that look in a stranger’s or neighbour’s eye when you meet and their look signals so clearly that you are despised for who you are, even if you’re not known. How much those looks—over and over again—contributed to the behaviour of the teenagers in the car with Colton Boushie that night can’t be measured by me. How much the community history of animosity and suspicion contributed to Gerald Stanley’s loading a handgun and firing it can’t be known by me either.

I’ve lived on a reserve racked by poverty, I’ve paid attention to the working of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I’ve heard a stream of news on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry and like you, the unbelievable statistics regarding suicide on reserves have appalled me. We have neighbours whose despair and disappointment is so deep that many can’t see any possibility of a better life.

That should spur us to action, if for no other reason than that the prevention of tragic events like Colton Boushie’s death is far, far better for all of us than the fruitless debating of who’s to blame, and court cases that resolve nothing. If I don’t care enough to pay attention, to make my voice heard on the side of reconciliation, then I’m as much to blame, probably, as . . . well, as Gerald Stanley?

Just sayin’.

God forgive us all . . . we apparently don’t know what the hell we’re doing!

Friday, January 26, 2018

What's your "core mandate?"

Mennonite Heritage Museum
“Both the job and my organization’s core mandate respect the individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights. These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability or sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression,” . . .. (Emphasis mine.)

The Canada Summer Jobs Application includes four “attestations,” the signing of which is required in order to qualify under the guidelines set out for organizations to receive taxpayer support in hiring students for the summer. The above is one of them. I’ve underlined the words that have offended pro-life groups particularly and parts of the population generally, thereby enabling news gatherers to milk yet another topic of marginal interest to the majority of people, most of whom will never see a Canada Summer Jobs Application.

First off, I manage the Mennonite Heritage Museum which hires a student through the government summer employment program. And, yes, I signed the attestation because our organization’s mandate and activities include nothing about reproductive rights and our student is not expected to promote any view whatsoever on the subject. In fact, if our student was using his/her contacts to hand out pro-life or pro-choice pamphlets, he/she could expect to be released. That would be no different from our student employee discriminating in his/her hosting of visitors on any of the other items in the third point of the attestation quoted above.

Most absurd in the protests is the complaint that the government is telling us with this attestation requirement what we should or should not believe. Nonsense. Signing the attestation binds me to nothing, compromises nothing regarding my personal faith; it simply requires that on matters of human rights and current Canadian law, I won’t count on taxpayers’ money to fund the propagation of my views. If I or my organization wish to take on a mandate that, for instance, includes the promotion of a pro-choice or pro-life “belief,” the option of paying a student out of our own funds is clearly there.

I think we’d all take exception to a religious organization’s using taxpayer funds to proselytize in the streets. Ruling this out is not a matter of belief or freedom; the issue is what public funds will or will not support. In Canada today, the freedom to express our faith and act on it is not infringed as it is in much of the world. This freedom needs protection and the false slant being put on this one issue is not helping.

The government can justifiably be criticized for singling out “reproductive rights” in a way that makes one wonder why this one and not other controversial beliefs and opinions are listed. But that’s probably a communication failure more than anything; the current federal government has stumbled over this brick before. Granted, the detailed policing of student employees and their activities is an impossibility given the resources assigned to this program so the attestations may be seen as a legitimate means toward requiring organizations to police themselves.

The Trudeau government has increased the number of student employment places considerably and my experience with the program has been more than positive. The Mennonite Heritage Museum has been able to provide a young man with invaluable experience and learning, probably with less public money than a classroom can offer. The provision of youth summer employment demands applause; protecting it from abuse is a laudable goal.





Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Trigger wasn't just a horse!

Frenchman River near Val Marie, Saskatchewan - Grasslands country
"Donald Trump (is/isn’t) a racist."

Grammatically speaking, racist in this sentence is a predicate adjective, an adjective placed in the predicating part of the sentence to modify (clarify, expand on) the sentence subject. It’s structure is the same as in the sentences, “Trigger is a horse,” or “King David was a bigamist.”

But most of us yawn at grammar niceties, so let’s simply say that using this sentence structure signals something that may not be intended, that may be harmful, and in a courtroom (with a judge who paid attention when he sat in English class in high school) might even be ruled to be slanderous or libelous. To say that someone is a racist, a bigamist, a procrastinator . . . or a horse, invites the inference that that adjective nails down the subject’s essential characteristic. It’s possibly justifiable in Trigger’s case, but nowhere else, really.

Because we’re all racists. We all attach prejudgments to people based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, age and sometimes race. It’s the kind of knee-jerk evaluation we make when we’re short of knowledge about people so that their appearance, their dress, their way of speaking leads to assumptions that may or may not have any merit. To do a racist thing, make a racist comment simply means that an assumption is being made based not on knowledge
 . . . but on a racial stereotype.

Adjectives modify (clarify, expand on) nouns, but when used to modify an action, we call them adverbs. Consider this: Donald Trump racistically decided to call African countries “s**tholes.” The racism attaches to the action, naming the quality of an incident or decision, not the person. And we all know that labels applied to people can be exceedingly harmful in general, life-destroying in some cases.

There are people who occasionally make racist remarks, occasionally engage in racist acts. I’m in that group, I think. There are also people who make a habit of applying racially based stereotypes, people like those KKK and white supremacist group members who literally believe that merit can be accurately deduced from skin colour, for instance. To label an individual KKK member as a racist, though, implies that this prejudice in him is his essential characteristic, and that would simply repeat his error.

People are never justly summed up in one word. Even Trigger is unjustly labeled as “simply a horse.” Ask Roy Rogers if you doubt this.

Dropping a racist remark doesn’t make me “just a racist.” It means that I haven’t finished my education yet and should probably wash my mouth out with soap, sit in the corner for a few hours with a grammar text and an encyclopedia.

And for those of us who believe we ought to do our bit to make the world better, we could begin by weighing our own words more carefully, by calling out racially-motivated actions in government, in business, in the social structures of our time. We need to learn and practice the difference between the adverbial and the adjectival use of our labels, for a start!

In the end, nothing worthwhile is accomplished by arriving at a consensus that Trump is or is not a racist, although people seem right now to be obsessed with this quest. His pseudo-presidency has included any number of acts that should long since have disqualified him as a leader, some to which an apparent racist motivation could certainly be applied. Would be nice if more of what the man does and says could be motivated by humility, by empathy, by courtesy.

One can always hope that sometime a light, an epiphany will break through. One can only hope.